Chevalier opens with a violin duel. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is onstage taking requests from the audience as to which concerto he should play next when a young, Black man in a powdered wig enters the theater, violin in hand. "May I play with you, monsieur?" the man asks. Mozart acquiesces, and then is promptly upstaged by the violin-shredding stranger, whose every musical flourish has the men in the audience on the edges of their seats and whose bravado presence leaves the woman fanning themselves.
Amid rapturous applause, a stunned Mozart runs backstage and demands to know, "Who the f**k is that?!"
The answer is Joseph Bologne, the son of a plantation owner and a slave who was brought from the Caribbean to Paris to study as a young boy and who eventually rose up in the court of Marie Antoinette as Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Bologne was a virtuosic violinist, a prolific composer, and a champion fencer whom President John Adams once described as "The most accomplished man in all of Europe." He had all but been erased from history — until Chevalier.
"For many, many years, when people actually did speak about Joseph, they called him the 'Black Mozart.' It was just the most demeaning, condescending thing I could think of," screenwriter Stefani Robinson tells A.frame. "This opening was a middle finger to that notion. Like, 'If you're here for a movie about someone who is going to feel and act like Mozart, this is what you're in for. Strap in.'"
"I'm embarrassed to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about Joseph Bologne," says director Stephen Williams. "Within the first half a dozen pages, I was hooked." Neither the director nor Chevalier'swriter was interested making a traditional cradle-to-the-grave biopic about Bologne, though. "We were interested in making a movie that was spiritually and emotionally true," says Williams, "if not at every turn, factual."
Take, for example, that opening violin duel. "That whole scene was inspired by the first time Jimi Hendrix met Eric Clapton," Robinson explains. "Supposedly, Eric Clapton was playing a show with his band, Cream, in London. Jimi Hendrix asked to go up on stage and play with him, and then outplayed Clapton at his own show. I thought that that was the most insane story I've ever heard. In a way, I thought that Joseph was probably the Jimi Hendrix of pre-revolutionary France."
The violin duel was the first thing that Robinson ever wrote for Chevalier ("It was the first aha moment for me") but one of the last sequences filmed before wrapping. "We were supposed to do it in the beginning," Kelvin Harrison Jr., who stars as Bologne, reveals, "which was insanity. But I miraculously fractured my collarbone, and so we had to push the shoot. Some say I did it on purpose, some say it was an accident... I don't know! We'll never find out!"
Harrison Jr. was filming Baz Luhrmann's Elvis, in which he portrayed B.B. King opposite Austin Butler's Elvis, when he was cast in Chevalier. Williams knew him from A24's 2019 family drama, Waves. "And I felt like he was ready to carry a movie. He's in every scene in this movie — there's not a scene that doesn't have Kelvin in it," the director notes.
"First and foremost, he had the chops. Secondly, he comes from a family of musicians himself, so he intuitively understood the interior landscape of someone like Joseph Bologne," Williams says of casting Harrison Jr. "But probably most importantly, above all of that, he is a dedicated, focused, committed artist. There's not a single stunt double in this film. All the violin bowing is Kelvin, and we deliberately shot in really long takes, so as to make sure that the audience knew that. There's no cinematic trickery."
Harrison Jr. (who admits he knew "zero" about Bologne before signing on to the film) practiced violin for six hours a day, seven days a week, for six months leading up to shooting Chevalier. During breaks on set, the actor and his violin teacher would drill concertos in his trailer. Still, the thought of filming the violin duel never got any less intimidating for him.
"No one knew if I was going to be able to actually pull it off, because no one got to see me do it in rehearsals. Because I wouldn't do it in rehearsals," Harrison Jr. recalls. "That sounds like such a diva thing, but I thought it was important to allow people to not overthink the moment! It needed to feel spontaneous! Joseph needed to feel like the secret weapon! And secretly, I didn't really have the piece fully learned yet… We shot that scene all day from, like, call-time at 6:00 a.m. to wrap at 10, or something like that. My fingers were bleeding, my feet hurt, but it was so fun."
Williams and Robinson approached Chevalier like an opera. Audiences would come into the movie knowing exactly who the hero of the story is. They would understand that his romance — with an opera singer named Marie-Josephine, played by Samara Weaving — was doomed from the very start. And viewers would know who the villain is: In this case, Marie Antoinette, as played by Lucy Boynton.
"Lucy is just such a talented, brave actor," Williams says. "It's no secret that Marie Antoinette is a very well trafficked role, so the question hanging over any new depiction of her is, 'What new lane are you going to carve out for this character?' You could only achieve that with someone like Lucy, who understood the layers and was able to portray the complexity and the contradiction at the core of that character."
Boynton couldn't completely disavow herself of previous onscreen portrayals of Antoinette ("I love that Coppola film way too much to avoid it") but, she reasons, "It was useful knowing that, 'Okay, we've seen that. We've done that. Now, I'm free to do something else, and I can push those boundaries into full villainy.' In the earlier scenes, she is that youthful, fun, fizzy girl that we know her to be, then as the film progresses, we go into this uncharted territory of her having to confront the fact that the world, as she knows it, is crumbling."
In Chevalier, it is Antoinette who appoints Bologne to Chevalier. The two are fast friends and he becomes one of the queen's closest confidantes. The movie ends with them on opposing sides of the French Revolution, with Bologne later leading a calvary of more than 1,000 Black soldiers in the revolt. Repositioning Antoinette in the cinematic canon proved to be one of Robinson's main challenges.
"She's incredibly famous. She is the historical figure. It's like Jesus and Marie Antoinette," the writer says with a laugh. "At the same time, she is sort of representative of convenient allyship. She is conveniently Joseph's friend when it suits her. If it really means that she has to stick her neck out — no pun intended — she gets her head chopped off. She doesn't do it, because she's cowardly. So, that relationship was important. By the way, in all accounts, probably absolutely didn't go down like that in reality."
Joseph Bologne died in 1799, though he would face a second death, of sorts, when Napoleon Bonaparte reinstated slavery in subsequent years and Bologne's life's work was destroyed. In doing so, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges was all but erased from history — only rediscovered centuries later by music scholars. For many, Chevalier will be the first time they are formally introduced to Bologne and his work.
"He's been marginalized, intentionally and non-intentionally, in different ways, erased and forgotten," Robinson says. "The fact that his music is here and he's being represented again feels like he is getting the last laugh. That's a beautiful thing, and I catch myself getting really emotional about it."
"It's such an honor, honestly," Harrison Jr. says for his part. "And I don't like using that word, because I feel like every actor is like, 'It's such an honor and a privilege,' but it truly, actually is."
He continues, "Joseph is so awesome, to me, because he wasn't doing it to be famous. He was doing it because he loved it, and he wanted to challenge everyone that was surrounding him. And then you think about the fact that the man went on to be a revolutionary in so many ways, and he died penniless. He was for the people. And to be able to give an unsung hero like him a platform to be a star for a second is the best. I think it reminds people just to just do them and be themselves, and eventually, it will be remembered in some way — even if it's centuries later."
As Williams puts it, "At the beginning of the movie, Joseph has worked his way into the upper echelons of French society and is a close cohort of Marie Antoinette the Queen. By the end of the movie, he has decided to join a revolution against that monarchy, against that former friend. In between those two poles, something transformative happened to him, and it flows in the direction of self-awareness, self-knowledge, a greater sense of one's place, and one's role, and one's destiny. The movie is about a musical revolutionary who takes part in a literal revolution, but also undergoes a revolution of thought, of spiritual orientation, of thinking, and of self-assessment and self-awareness."
"It felt like minus the wigs and the costumes," the director adds, "this story could be happening today."
By John Boone